Minneapolis: Build It And They Will Come

Justin Schell
Justin Schell

The Twin Cities are no stranger to new music. Home not only to the Walker Art Center’s concert series (which has hosted Argentinean singer Juana Molina as well as noise-makers Black Dice in recent months), but also to Zeitgeist and the Intergalactic Contemporary Ensemble, two resident ensembles dedicated to new music. In the fall of 2004, Stanley Rothrock, a choral conducting DMA student at the University of Minnesota, added another voice to the Cities’ already generous new music scene, founding the Renegade Ensemble.

“What sets the Renegade Ensemble apart from both Zeitgeist and ICE,” Rothrock says, “is the inclusion of the non-professional musician into the ensemble.” The ensemble fills its ranks mainly with Minnesota graduates and undergraduates, as well as amateur musicians, as Rothrock seeks to “expose and involve those on the periphery of the contemporary music scene who wish to do more.”

Such an inclusionary motto only seems to propel the ambition of Rothrock and the other members of the ensemble in performing challenging repertoire. Programs have included Steve Reich’s Clapping Music, Pauline Oliveros’s Sonic Meditation XVI, John Cage’s Living Room Music, and Meredith Monk’s “Astronaut Anthem” and “Panda Chant II,” the latter from The Games. Further, at least one work on each concert can be performed by any instrument or voice type. The group has performed Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together, Louis Andriessen’s Workers Union, and that stalwart of contemporary music ensembles, Terry Riley’s In C. Rothrock was especially pleased with the Ensemble’s instrumentation of Riley’s work. “Our performance of In C even had an accordion!” he points out.

The Renegade Ensemble also performs the newest of new music, premiering works on each of the three concerts the group has offered. They have performed student composer Amanda Albrecht’s The Stand, as well as the U.S. premieres of Peter Billiam’s Tres Casidas del Divan de Tamarit, a setting of three poems from Federico García Lorca’s final collection of poems, as well as the Irish composer Linda Buckley’s Libera Me.

The centerpieces of the Ensemble’s most recent concert, held last month, were Philip Glass’s Music in 5ths and Steve Reich’s Sextet. Two flutes, two clarinets, two pianos, two players on a marimba, two synthesizers, and double bass made up the instrumentation for the Glass. The relentless motion and intensity of the piece sometimes got the best of the ensemble, as players scrambled to find their place or, for the non-circular breathing wind players, snatch a gulp of air.

Percussionists Andrew Martin, David Birrow, Brian Duffy, and James Price deftly executed the Sextet’s interlocking patterns, as well as the ethereal harmonics of the bowed vibraphone, undergirded by synthesizer and piano ostinatos. The piece slowly builds through its five movements to its conclusion, generating the piece’s only moments of excitement. The group ably performed a piece that is generally not a favorite among Reich’s work; to my ears it is often plodding and lacking the rhythmic interest of a piece like Eight Lines.For me, seeing the Sextet live made a stronger case for the piece than the 1986 Nonesuch recording

The populist performance aesthetic of the Renegade Ensemble extends to the audience as well. “My goal is to expose people to new music,” Rothrock concluded, which is not only achieved through the inclusion of new players, but also “by filling the concert hall seats with new bodies.” The concert of Glass and Reich was well-attended by a very appreciative audience, seemingly fulfilling Rothrock’s goal. Hopefully the enthusiasm for new music displayed at this concert will carry over to the Renegade Ensemble’s next concert, a performance of George Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique in April of 2006.

***

Justin Schell lives in Minneapolis. He is a first-year graduate student in the Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, where his main research interests are the study of contemporary musical cultures, the relationship between music criticism and notions of historical value, and the myriad ways that music does cultural work throughout the globe. He previously lived and worked in Milwaukee, where he completed a Bachelor’s degree in Music History and Philosophy. And he unwaveringly agrees with Frank Zappa that The Shaggs are better than the Beatles.